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The former Indian skipper recently brought the curtains down on his international career in the simplest of ways, sending the cricket community into a frenzy. It was a shocking move, but it was also executed in true Dhoni style: unorthodox, effective and most importantly, free of drama.
June 23, 2013. England required six runs off the final ball in a tense finale to the 2013 Champions Trophy against India. MS Dhoni counseled his trusted finger-spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin to bring to fore, the mantra we have all heard at every stage of our lives, regardless of the career path we undertook: “stick to the basics”. That is exactly what Ashwin did and bowled a dot ball to give India a victory and complete Dhoni’s trifecta of limited-over trophies. The result drew a line in the sand; the cricketing community would know MSD had been to English shores and marshalled his country to victory again. Yet another trophy had the Indian skipper’s fingerprints on them, even if he held it for just a split-second before calmly handing it over to the younger players and walking to the peripheries of jubilation.
Close to seven years later, Dhoni declared his retirement in August 2020 via a casual post on Instagram; a classic Bollywood song with a montage of his best moments in the Indian blue strip, alongside an initially cryptic caption, the evident clarity of which many realized in due course. The song he chose, “Pal Do Pal Ka Shaayar”, is one that is testament to the multiplicity of what we experience in our lives, and the manner in which Dhoni curated the images to fit in with the song’s lyrics helps us grasp every emotion we experienced alongside him during his career in blue.
Dhoni’s leadership and decision-making often possessed the same shades his internet-shattering caption did. On multiple occasions, I’ve been dumbfounded by his gestures, his shuffling of batting and bowling sequences or field placements, never more so than when he sent himself up the order against Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final. But these moves inevitably worked and in retrospect, I’d be disappointed for not latching on to the logic behind them earlier. A novel field placing to remove Kieron Pollard in the 2010 IPL final, the choice to toss the ball to Ishant Sharma in the 2013 Champions Trophy final and Joginder Sharma in the 2007 T20 World Cup final, promoting himself up the order in the 2011 final to tackle Muttiah Muralidharan’s off-spin on a vicious wicket – none of these make sense because momentarily, you feel nothing eclipses the tension of a fan watching the dramatic final moments of a major match unfold. But after the game, you sit back and realize MSD wove a web around your senses and possibly exploited your investment in the game to make your heart race that bit faster, only to bring it back to normalcy with a casual smile and handshake when the result went the right way. The man was daring but never reckless; simple, but unabashed by complexity; spontaneous, but calculated. How a common man, let alone the captain of the Indian cricket team, can display these qualities when the pressure rockets and emotions are all over the place, is befuddling. But it never seemed difficult for MSD.
Dhoni has had his share of poor decisions, especially in bilateral tournaments away from India – one of the rather large blemishes on an otherwise glittering career. His batting has often been hailed as unorthodox and it is fair to say most of us are on the edge of our seats for the first ten balls he faces. But what Dhoni embodied for the teams he represented, be it India, the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) or even briefly, the Rising Pune Supergiants, was hope. The numerous times we have watched a match that seemed a lost cause for those few additional minutes simply because we’ve laid all our hope and burden on one man’s shoulders is testament to that. The hope Dhoni brought to a nation reflected on the pitch as well. When he bats, the support he provides allows his partner to flourish. We saw this when Virat Kohli decimated Australia in the 2014 T20 World Cup just by running them into sublimation alongside his captain; we saw it again when Ravindra Jadeja revelled with MSD on the other end in the 2019 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, even though victory proved elusive.
On both occasions, Dhoni did not score more or at a higher rate than his partner, but purely provided the support (physically and psychologically) they needed to get the wheels in motion. In essence, it is this very feature that will go down as Dhoni’s biggest success – not his trophies or individual accolades, which at the end of the day, don’t really seem to make a difference to the man.
Dhoni’s unfazed appearance and detachment from the result often leads to criticism, especially when the team falters. However, there have been occasions where ‘Captain Cool’ has displayed raw emotions as well. One of these moments is etched in collective cricketing memory, particularly in the minds of CSK fans, when Dhoni plummeted Irfan Pathan and the Kings XI Punjab to take his side to the playoffs in 2010. Upon hitting the six that laid the game to rest once and for all, MSD was captured punching his helmet repeatedly in frustration.
In 2013, after Ravi Ashwin bowled the dot ball that won India the Champions Trophy, Dhoni jumped in joy – another rare moment to add to an almost deserted collection of the Ranchi man letting loose. The leap was followed immediately by a request to the Indian players, who had already begun celebrating, to throw the ball back to the umpire to complete the formalities, even though it wasn’t really required. It was back to business as usual in a matter of seconds. In my opinion, that was our gateway into how Dhoni’s brain worked; he experiences the emotions like any of us, but those are quickly overpowered by a commitment to the cause and he knows it’s not over till it’s over.
As of 19:29 on August 15, 2020, MS Dhoni’s exit from international cricket was confirmed once and for all. It was inevitable and somewhere within, we’ve all known for years that the distant nightmare was inching closer and closer to becoming a reality. Yet, the idea that we might see Dhoni only for a few more years, only in yellow and never in blue, is a difficult pill to swallow. The fact that beyond that, we’d have to watch his lightning reflexes and brutal batsmanship only as recordings is personally frightening.
But somewhere beyond these fears, I feel I’ve been fortunate to watch and experience Dhoni at the peak and trough of his powers as a cricketer and leader. Cricket for me, began as leisure and entertainment, then became a long-shot career option and now, is a passion that I cannot let go of. I am more than sure that is the case for multiple others who aspired to become cricketers and bled blue just for the superman from Ranchi. But the one thing cricket has constantly been for me, is a learning curve. And I could not be more grateful that Dhoni is and will remain, the focal point of most of my learnings from the sport.